The far-right candidate is on the verge of becoming Brazil’s next president.
Bolsonaro won 46 percent of the vote during the first round of elections on Sunday, falling just shy of winning outright. He will face leftist candidate Fernando Haddad — who took just 29 percent of the vote — in a runoff on October 28.
Bolsonaro’s rise has roiled Brazilian politics. The candidate has quickly gained popularity, despite being a polarizing figure who has promised to “break the system” and freely spews misogynistic, anti-LGBTQ, racist, and anti-democratic views.
The presidential frontrunner has also been compared to US President Donald Trump; both men share a reputation for incendiary rhetoric, have tried to build campaigns on promises to end corruption and crack down on crime and chaos, and know their way around social media.
Here’s what you need to know about the Brazilian candidate sometimes dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics.”
1) He’s casting himself as the political outsider
Bolsonaro isn’t exactly a political outsider — though he’s certainly tried to paint himself as one. The 63-year-old is a former military officer and has served seven terms in Brazil’s federal congress. As Mike LaSusa wrote for Vox, the candidate has enjoyed strong ties to the military and rose to prominence as “a no-holds-barred conservative.”
He’s been a member of many different parties over the years, but Bolsonaro most recently joined the Social Liberal Party (PSL), and from there mounted his presidential campaign. His affiliation with the formerly marginal party has turned it into a political force that’s poised to make tremendous gains in Brazil’s legislature.
Bolsonaro relied heavily on social media to promote his candidacy and get his message out. The candidate often seems to be taking a page out of Trump’s playbook, whether it’s bragging about his votes, blaming the leftist Workers’ Party for Brazil’s failures, or promising to “rescue Brazil together.”
The far-right politician has also faced intense opposition and protests, particularly from women. Opponents have used the slogan #EleNão or “Not Him.” In September, a suspect who claimed he was on a “mission from God” stabbed the candidate in the abdomen at a campaign rally.
Bolsonaro was seriously injured — but it also helped raise his profile, and it gave him something of a “martyr” status. It may have also cowed his opponents, who didn’t want to be blasting a man who’d just survived a knife attack.
“I just want to send a message to the thugs who tried to ruin the life of a family man, a guy who is the hope for millions of Brazilians,” said Flávio Bolsonaro, Jair’s Bolsonaro’s son after the attack. “You just elected him president.”
2) He has a history of embracing offensive views
Oh, where to begin. Bolsonaro has a deep record of making offensive comments about women and the LGBTQ community and racist statements about Brazil’s black or mixed race community, which makes up more than half of the country’s population.
He’s held these views for years, but his newfound popularity and presidential platform have amplified their reach. Guilherme Casarões, a comparative politics professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university in Sao Paulo, told the Washington Post, “five years ago, he was just another congressman with anti-gay views. Now Bolsonaro, like Trump, has become a larger-than-life figure.”
The candidate has even faced charges for his discriminatory comments. Here’s a sampling of some of the things he’s said:
- Bolsonaro has disparaged indigenous and Quilombolas communities, who are descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves, implying among other things that they were lazy. “I think they don’t even manage to procreate anymore,” the candidate said.
- He’s said that if he had a gay son, he would be unable to love him and “prefer that he die in an accident.”
- He said a woman lawmaker wasn’t attractive enough to be raped because she was ugly. “She’s not my type. I would never rape her. I’m not a rapist, but if I were, I wouldn’t rape her because she doesn’t deserve it,” Bolsonaro said in 2014.
- Bolsonaro responded to a question in 2011 about what he would do if his son fell in love with a black woman by saying, “I won’t discuss promiscuity.” He continued, “I don’t run that risk because my sons were very well educated.”
Some of his supporters seem to welcome his rhetoric, while others want him to tone it down, for fear that he may alienate voters. Bolsonaro’s opponents have protested against his offensive language, and have even compared him to Adolf Hitler.
In response, the presidential frontrunner has tried to play off some of his commentary as jokes taken out of context. He’s also said he will not moderate his language, though he has recently tried to use more inclusive by saying he’s trying to make Brazil safer and better for all its people — though his past stances seem to defy that.
3) He has a troublesome affinity for Brazil’s military dictatorship
Some of Bolsonaro’s most controversial statements involve his laudatory remarks about Brazil’s military dictatorship. (The country was under military rule from the 1960s until the mid-1980s.) In 2015, Bolsonaro went so far as to call it “glorious.”
In 2016, Bolsonaro voted to impeach then-President Dilma Rousseff, and Bolsonaro indicated he did so in honor of the then-deceased chief of the secret police in Sao Paulo, who oversaw the torture of hundreds under military rule. It was a disturbing act, as Rousseff herself had been imprisoned by the dictatorship.
For his presidential run, Bolsonaro chose a retired military general as his running mate who’s also made disconcerting statements about military power, including that the return of military rule in Brazil could be justified under some circumstances.
Bolsonaro has not gone that far in his presidential campaign, but his nostalgia for the days of military rule has alarmed many Brazilians. There are others, however, who sympathize with his position in the wake of increased crime and insecurity in the country.
4) He’s a hardliner who’s constructed an anti-corruption and anti-crime platform
A huge and sprawling corruption scandal engulfed Brazilian politics, and that sense of dysfunction has made the population dissatisfied and disillusioned with its leaders.
Michel Temer, who is affiliated with a center-right party, is the current president, and he’s abysmally unpopular. He took over after Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party, was impeached and removed from office in 2016 because of her connections with the corruption scandal. Rousseff was not implicated directly, but her party was in power and she faced other pressures, such as the deepening recession.
Rousseff’s predecessor, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, served as president from 2003 to 2011, and remains extremely popular in Brazil, as his tenure was associated with economic growth and greater equality. Lula is so popular, in fact, that he was the frontrunner in the 2018 presidential race and was on his way to becoming president again — except he was barred from running because he’s serving a 12-year prison sentence after also being caught up in the corruption scandal. (Lula and his supporters have called his conviction as dubious.)
With Lula out, Fernando Haddad, a former mayor of Sao Paulo, stepped in. Haddad has tried to tie himself tightly to Lula’s legacy, and he’s made improving the economy central to his campaign. But so far, he’s failed to drum up tremendous popular support — though the dynamic may shift now that the race has narrowed to a two-person runoff.
Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has capitalized on Brazilians’ discontent with their government and its perceived inability to address the country’s economic and political ills.
But Bolsonaro’s “law and order” platform also puts his far-right extremism into focus. In a slogan that recalls a certain American president, Bolsonaro said in a broadcast to supporters ahead of Sunday’s election: “Let’s make Brazil great! Let’s be proud of our homeland once again!”